November 13, 2012
The One I Needed
“Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” Matthew 6:8
I found myself in a terrible place I never expected to be. A dark, awful situation that filled my heart with terror and my eyes with tears that just wouldn’t stop. “Oh, God!” I pleaded, “Please, please make this not be real. Please let this all be a mistake!” How would I possibly endure this? I wasn’t even sure I could endure it. Then I looked into the tiny, beautiful face of the child on my lap, and knew that I didn’t have a choice. Somehow, in some unthinkable way, I would have to be strong. For her, I would need to press on.
Six months earlier, when I met her for the first time, I instantly knew that she was different from her nursery-mates at the hospital. Obviously, shockingly different. And honestly, I wasn’t sure that I would be able to love her. But I knew that she needed a mother. She needed someone to care for her, to hold her close, to see her beauty. For some reason that I didn’t fully understand, God had called me to be that person. So with only some previous experience with medically-fragile children, a firm resolve to be obedient to God’s calling, and a whisper-thin stirring of compassion, I said “yes.” And with that, I became her foster mother.
The days quickly turned into weeks and then months. Time just seemed to fly by as I got to know her. As I learned to understand what her different cries meant and figured out how to make her laugh. It didn’t take long at all before I fell in love with that little girl. I mean, hopelessly, head-over-heals crazy about her! My camera was always nearby to capture her every expression. Somehow her name came up in every conversation. I was thoroughly smitten. How could I have ever thought that she was anything less than perfect?! My heart was completely full with the joy she brought into my life! “This,” I thought to myself, “is why I do what I do.” Life was good.
Then one warm spring evening, everything unexpectedly changed in an instant. The kids were all tucked safely into their beds and the house was quiet. It was the end of another long, busy day, and I looked forward to crawling into my own bed before starting all over again tomorrow. As I was getting undressed, I accidentally felt it. A lump. And in that one moment, I knew that my life would never be the same again.
I sat in the doctor’s office hearing words I didn’t want to hear. Facing decisions I didn’t want to make. It was like a thick fog settled into my brain, and words that I’m sure I must have heard before no longer made any sense. Malignant tumor. Early stages. Lumpectomy or mastectomy? Radiation treatments. It was a foreign language in unfamiliar territory, and I simply couldn’t process it.
For several years, I had been caring for foster children with special needs. I had become quiet comfortable meeting physical needs and navigating the medical community. I literally have lost count of how many times I have taken a child to the emergency department, how many hours I have spent in waiting rooms during their surgeries, how many hundreds of doctors and specialists and therapists I have interacted with. It’s a huge part of my life. But now, for the first time ever, I was the patient. I was on the receiving end of all of that scrutiny and all of those strangers touching my body. All of a sudden any previous experience I may have had didn’t matter, not at all. I was terrified and thoroughly overwhelmed! How could this be real? I can’t do this!
Oh, but feed this precious baby? Rub lotion into her soft skin? Help her with her daily physical therapy exercises? That, I understand. That is something I can do. She was my connection with everything real and important and beautiful. While my diagnosis filled me with panic-like fear, and the endless tests and procedures and countless blue gowns left me feeling out of control, the familiarity of daily routines gave me a sense of peace and calm. A reassurance that someone still needed me. That maybe this ugly disease invading my body wasn’t the end of the world after all.
The unavoidable surgery was quickly scheduled, and the doctor warned me of the pain and discomfort that was sure to follow. “It may be a while before you are able to pick her up,” she predicted. A while? How could I go even one day without pressing her cheek to mine and feeling her head resting on my shoulder? It was unthinkable. And I was determined that I wouldn’t let a simple thing like pain prevent me from caring for this little life I loved so much.
After months and months of nurturing her and providing her with the right therapy in order to develop and thrive, that little girl became my therapy! Her smile was my medicine, and her giggles were better than any pain prescription my surgeon could have written. She was exactly what I needed! Two days after my surgery, she was back in my arms, exactly where she belonged. Take that, you nasty disease! I will not let you separate me from this sweet girl. You will not win!
Of course, the surgery was only the beginning. The daily radiation treatments were simply awful, both physically and emotionally. I cried so much on the way there each morning, that I ended up asking a friend to drive me, not only for my own protection but for the safety of the other drivers on the road. And the physical fatigue? It soon pressed in on my like a weight. I would stand at the bottom of the stairs for a moment, knowing that I needed to climb them to reach my bedroom, but first needing to summon up the energy as if I were facing Mt. Everest. Half-way through cooking dinner I would need to turn off the stove and go lie on the couch and rest until my second-wind kicked in. It was the longest month of my life!
Well-meaning friends and family members all said the same thing: “You need to take care of yourself.” “You need to think about your own needs.” I knew what was left unspoken, what everyone was thinking. It would have been so easy to relinquish our foster care license. Or at least to take a break. The social workers would have understood. Everyone would have been supportive. God would have continued to love me.
Yes it was tempting, oh so tempting to quit. To legitimately prioritize my needs and focus on myself. However, I just couldn’t allow myself to go down that road. I had recently lost an important part of my identity: the part of me that was Whole and Healthy and Confident. I didn’t want to lose Productive and Valuable as well. That would have so easily led to self-pity, and I know from personal experience that once Self-Pity get her party going, she likes to invite her friends Guilt, Shame, and Despair. I needed to do everything I could to stop that party before it even started! No, I refused to quit!
Several weeks into my radiation course, I was simply exhausted. Physically and emotionally spent. I just wanted to stay in bed and not have to endure one more treatment. The long day before me seemed impossible, completely insurmountable. My first thought every morning was to count the hours until I would be able to crawl back into bed again. But then came the second thought: this little one needs me. She needs me to get out of bed, face the day, and take care of her and my other responsibilities. She is depending on me to finish the treatments and become healthy again.
And so that exactly is what I did. Each day, I put one foot in front of the next, finding comfort and a small sense of fulfillment in the ordinary, mundane tasks of caring for this child. Sitting on the couch feeding her a bottle every few hours. Giving her a bath and picking out her cutest outfit. Even taking her to doctor’s appointments and scheduling her therapists’ visits were purposeful, giving me a sense of efficiency and accomplishment. My life during those months was like a barren plot of dirt – desolate, empty, and thoroughly ugly. But there she was, right in the very middle of it like a delicate flower, bright and colorful and unexpectedly lovely.
I didn’t know when I met her what to expect. I wasn’t sure why God was bringing her into my life. My goal was simply to learn to love her, to nurture her and do everything I could to help her develop and thrive. I knew that she needed me. But God knew something I didn’t. He knew that in the midst of a frightening situation that threatened to consume me, I would need a reason to get up the morning, a reason to find hope. He gave me a special person who would force me to look beyond myself and the ugly diagnosis, and concentrate on caring for her instead. He gave me someone who was beautiful. Long before I even knew what to ask for, He knew. She was the one I needed.